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Department of History

Culture and Practice of Warfare in Pre-Colonial Sub-Saharan Africa

Course Code:
Course Withdrawn
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2

This course will examine the history of armed conflict, its causes and consequences, in pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa. The timeframe ranges from the medieval era to the late nineteenth century. Using regional case studies – the west African coastal forest and savannah belt, the Ethiopian highlands and surrounding lowlands, the Zulu and their neighbours in southeast Africa, and lacustrine eastern Africa – the course will explore the manner in which warfare has shaped Africa in socio-economic, political and cultural terms, and specifically the role which warfare has played in the emergence of a range of state and non-state systems across the continent. Key topics for study will include changing social formations; the growth of identities based on violence and militarism; the relationship between military and political administration; the economics of African war; and the range of technologies developed and employed across the continent. Due attention will be paid to the resolution as well as the initiation of war.

Key topics will include:
  • War in African history: imagery and sources
  • External versus internal dynamics: the economics of war
  • Violence and society: social change and cultures of conflict
  • Warrior empires of West African savannah
  • Faith and arms: Ethiopian violence
  • The Atlantic zone: slaves, states and war
  • Zulu: the mfecane and its aftermath
  • Corridor of conflict: Buganda and its neighbours
  • Violence and state-formation in east and central Africa
  • European invasion: African initiatives and responses

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

By the end of this course, students will be in a position to:
  • Understand the role of warfare in pre-colonial African social and state formation, and appreciate the great diversity of conflicts across the continent.
  • Assess the mechanisms by which African communities both instigated and resolved conflict.
  • Evaluate the relationship between violence, culture and identity in African history.
  • Appreciate the diverse economic and technological contexts within which warfare occurred, and the material consequences flowing from conflict.
  • Critically evaluate both primary and secondary sources relating to the study of African warfare, and engage in historical arguments as a result.

Method of assessment

Written Exam 40%, 2 Essays worth 20% and 40%.

Suggested reading